When I was 8 years old, my father and 50 other union organizers were brutally beaten by guards outside a factory.
At the age of 14, I witnessed Detroit's "race riot" where African-Americans were pulled out of streetcars and beaten and killed by white mobs.
I was in Selma, Alabama on the historic Freedom Day to register voters. Tensions were high and leaders were escalating their tactics.
I saw the inequality and violence that African-Americans endured on a daily basis. It crippled our communities. All of what I experienced should have scared me enough to avoid challenging the system that allowed these injustices to occur. But my father, a union organizer, taught me that if the door of opportunity cracked open, we must dare to open it wider and hold it open for as many people as possible.
That's why, after seeing what I witnessed, I knew that I had to act. I could leverage my legal experience to change and create laws that guaranteed equal treatment no matter the color of a person’s skin. In a letter, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. urged me to "remove every remaining barrier to the free exercise of the ballot by our Negro citizens" and I knew I had to make it my mission.
That's why my first speech on the House floor as a Member of Congress was to recount the events I'd seen firsthand in Selma and urge my colleagues to pass the Voting Rights Act. It didn't solve all inequality, but it finally forced elected officials to be accountable to uphold the constitution they were elected to defend.
Fast forward to present day and we still find ourselves having to defend the right to vote – the very cornerstone of our great democracy. States with a history of discrimination at the polls are now allowed to resume such practices because the Voting Rights Act's most important sections were gutted by the Supreme Court in 2013.
It is up to Congress to restore the critical sections of the Voting Rights Act and the only thing stopping them are those in the political majority who have chosen to forget our history. They are the same Republicans who have removed “Civil Rights and Human Rights” from the title of a Senate committee that oversees these critical issues. This is the same party who passed an unprecedented number of voter identification laws that disproportionately affects young people, people of color, low-income people, veterans, and the elderly. Even more appalling is how they continue to defend these laws that have disenfranchised so many Americans.
The same Congress that can't seem to pass a fix to the Voting Rights Act, was able to recently pass a bill honoring the marchers of Selma. They must do more. And you and I know they can.
History has taught us is that power concedes nothing without a fight. We need the people to rise up and unapologetically demand justice.
As the 50th anniversary of the historic marches in Selma passes, I urge you all to be a better advocate for yourself and help defend the voiceless. If we want the laws to change to generate jobs, justice and peace, then we must recommit ourselves to this fight no matter how difficult or taxing it seems.
-Congressman John Conyers
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